The 6 Nations came in early February, and Wales were the favourites for many respected journalists. The problem was, many forgot that two key men, Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb were both still injured, though Webb was to return at Twickenham. Added to a lack of game time for captain Sam Warburton and key outside back Liam Williams, plus lingering doubts over a lack of attacking prowess, Wales looked an outside bet for the Grand Slam, and so it proved.
Wales travelled to Dublin for the first game of the 6 Nations, to face an Irish team with heavy injuries. The men in red started poorly, and World Cup hero Dan Biggar was forced off early in the first half due to injury. Rhys Priestland, the mercurial talent of Welsh rugby was Biggar’s replacement. A poor clearing kick from Priestland enabled the Irish to venture deep into the Welsh 22, and Conor Murray went over for the game’s opening try. Ireland led 13-0, but Taulupe Faletau went over from the back of a scrum. A key conversion from Priestland made it a six-point game, before a penalty just before half-time made it 13-10 to Ireland at the interval. Two Priestland penalties in a tense second-half gave Wales a 16-13 lead, but a disappointing box-kick from replacement scrum-half Lloyd Williams meant Johnny Sexton had an opportunity to level the scores. Level them he did, and the game ended 16-16. The grand slam was gone.
Next up for the Welsh was Scotland, who travelled to the Principality Stadium in poor spirits after a disappointing defeat to England. After a tight first half, Jamie Roberts and George North went over to create a 27-16 lead, before a late try from the Scots meant the game ended 27-23 in Cardiff.
On a Friday night in Round 3, Wales beat France 19-10 to maintain Championship hopes. Another George North try stretched out a 19-3 before French hooker Guilhem Guirado crossed in the last minute try to make the final score 19-10.
Then came the huge game, the title decider. With Wales playing host to Italy on the last day, it was widely thought that should the dragons take a victory away from Twickenham, the Championship would be theirs. Another shambolic start saw England race into a 19-0 lead just after the interval. Despite a late comeback from Wales, with tries from George North and Taulupe Faletau, the Englishmen prevailed, 25-21. The Championship too was gone.
A largely uneventful last game of the Championship saw Wales beat Italy 67-14 in Cardiff, running in nine tries in the process.
Then came the summer tour to the other side of the world, the best team in the world – New Zealand.
After a spirited display for the first 60 minutes, New Zealand pulled away to beat the Welsh 39-21. A promising performance was shadowed by the loss of reinvigorated winger George North for the rest of the tour.
Another decent showing in Wellington saw the scores level at 10-10 at half-time, but the All Blacks began the second period in devastating fashion, and won 36-22.
A beaten, tired Welsh side succumbed to the All Blacks 46-6 in the final game of the tour, but the 3-0 score line was as expected going into the tour.
The autumn tests began in typical Welsh fashion. Hope, promise and then failure.
Wales were blown away by a Bernard Foley inspired Australia at the Principality, losing 32-8 to the Wallabies. It was a hugely disappointing performance, and large questions remained over the attacking prowess that Wales didn’t possess.
Next, Argentina travelled to Cardiff. Again, Wales failed to show their attacking qualities, eventually prevailing 24-20, thanks to tries from Liam Williams and Gareth Davies.
The worst display of the Autumn series came next – a 33-30 victory against a depleted Japan side. A late drop-goal from young fly-half Sam Davies saved the Welsh from embarrassment, however Howley came under heavy criticism for both his team’s performance and his refusal to bring would be debutant Keelan Giles off the bench.
A Springbok side dubbed “the worst South African side ever” were last up at the Principality, and they brought with them a team riddled with political disagreements and a lack of quality. A promising attacking display ensured that Wales again avoided embarrassment, and coupled with the news that ex-England international Alex King would join the squad as attack coach for the Six Nations meant that the Welsh national side finished the year with hope for the future.
But as we’ve seen so many times before, it’s the hope that kills you.